Knipfel, Jim 1968- (Slackjaw)

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KNIPFEL, Jim 1968-

PERSONAL: Born 1968. Education: Graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, Random House, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019.

CAREER: Writer. Welcomat (now the Philadelphia Weekly), Philadelphia, PA, staff writer and columnist, 1987-94; New York Press, New York, NY, columnist, 1994—. Worked variously as a teacher, clerk, museum guard, and receptionist.


Slackjaw (memoir), Jeremy P. Tarcher (New York, NY), 1999.

Quitting the Nairobi Trio (memoir), Jeremy P. Tarcher (New York, NY), 2000.

The Buzzing: A Novel, Vintage (New York, NY), 2003.

Also author of a column published in the New York Press under the name Slackjaw.

SIDELIGHTS: Early in his career as a columnist, Jim Knipfel learned that he had a rare genetic illness called retinitis pigmentosa. The affliction that had caused his sight to begin deteriorating since birth would eventually leave him blind. He was also told that he suffered from a brain lesion—the cause of his depression and "rage seizures." Knipfel's first book, his memoir Slackjaw, is his account of his life and the effects his illnesses had on it. Knipfel writes as Slackjaw for the New York Press, and his Web site of the same name contains many of his columns.

New York Times Book Review critic Michiko Kakutani wrote that Knipfel "emerges as a sort of middle-class rebel, a would-be anarchist and outsider who has read a lot of Kafka, Nietzsche, and Dostoyevksy. He and a friend considered naming their rock band 'The Wolf Man, the Rat Man, and the Psychotic Dr. Schreber,' after the subtitle to Freud's Three Case Histories; in college they formed a political group called the 'Nihilist Workers' Party.'"

After graduating, Knipfel spent an unrewarding period teaching, quit, and began shoplifting. He took several jobs, first as a bookstore clerk, then in a pornography shop. He worked in a bar, as a guard at the Guggenheim Museum, and as a receptionist. As his eyesight deteriorated, he found it more and more difficult to be in public. He wore a wide-brimmed hat that warned him when he was too close to something as it made contact. He sold most of his belongings so that his apartment would be easier to navigate and he withdrew from the outside world.

Eventually, Knipfel learned to function with the help of teachers and aids. In his memoir, he provides an account of his often-negative experiences with agencies set up to help the blind. Kakutani concluded by saying that Slackjaw "displays remarkable elan and some wicked black humor in chronicling 'the weirdness parade' that has been Mr. Knipfel's life."

Knipfel's second memoir, Quitting the Nairobi Trio, is an account of his six months in a locked psychiatric ward after one of his failed suicide attempts. The title is taken from the television skits performed by the late comic Ernie Kovacs. After three days strapped to a bed, he regains consciousness citing Nietzsche in German as he spies all manner of tubes and drips attached to his body. Diagnosed as having had a psychotic break, Knipfel is relieved of any items with which he might hurt himself. With no medication and treatment other than ten-minute weekly sessions with a Dr. Spellman, he improves, and he begins to care about some of the other patients in his ward, where he plays cards and waits for the meal cart.

Daphne Merkin wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Quitting the Nairobi Trio "depicts the uselessness of shrinks and the virtues of a self-help approach to the disordered psyche" and called the book "a zany lark of a read, written by someone who seems to have a hard time taking his own existential despair seriously." A Publishers Weekly contributor felt that "Knipfel's wickedly hilarious and nutty viewpoint is so captivating that readers will finish his book with regret, waiting impatiently for the next installment of a unique, courageous life."

In an interview with Robert Fleming of Publishers Weekly, Knipfel described the difficulties of touring with his first book, which required his use of bright lighting and a magnifying glass to read computer printouts with very large letters. He said he was not touring with Quitting the Nairobi Trio. Fleming commented to Knipfel that what separates his book "from other memoirs of this type is your quirky, bizarre humor. How is humor important to your work?" Knipfel replied: "We're dealing with ugly situations in both books. If I couldn't laugh at them, I'd be a dead man. A lot of people have written similar books, but they're so maudlin, so weepy. I hate those books. I don't see myself as a victim. I don't weep over my circumstances." The Stranger's Rick Levin reviewed the book online, calling it "a great and honest memoir, with hidden depths and unrepentant humanity."

The Buzzing's protagonist, Roscoe Baragon, is a middle-aged overweight reporter working for the New York Sentinel. In this first novel, Knipfel's chain-smoking Baragon, once a serious journalist, now covers the "kook beat," where he becomes involved in the conspiracy theories of the eccentrics who contact him with their oddball stories. He lives alone with a cat named Hedora, watches videos of old Japanese horror films, and is the drinking buddy of Emily, a morgue pathologist.

"Soon he is falling under the spell of his own conspiracy theory," wrote Emily White in the New York Times Book Review, "which involves dead radioactive homeless men, inexplicable earthquakes and the state of Alaska." White wrote that Knipfel "knows how to pull a reader into his orbit. His writing has a hard-boiled magnetism. By the time Baragon shows signs of cracking up, you're already invested in him—he might be a lunatic, but you can't be sure. It's to the author's great credit that you never quite know until late in the novel whether Baragon is simply paranoid or whether he's onto something."

LAWeekly Online reviewer Brendan Bernhard remarked that "thanks to Knipfel's skill as a writer—he's both a humorist and an effortless storyteller—the plot seems much less absurd while you're reading the book than it does in summary." A Kirkus Reviews contributor called The Buzzing "hilarious and genuinely exciting: the kind of story that could restore your faith in journalism—if only it were true."



Knipfel, Jim, Slackjaw, Jeremy P. Tarcher (New York, NY), 1999.

Knipfel, Jim, Quitting the Nairobi Trio, Jeremy P. Tarcher (New York, NY), 2000.


Booklist, February 15, 1999, Whitney Scott, review of Slackjaw, p. 1013; June 1, 2000, Donna Seaman, review of Quitting the Nairobi Trio, p. 1825; February 15, 2003, Kaite Mediatore, review of The Buzzing, p. 1048.

Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 2002, review of TheBuzzing, p. 1721.

Library Journal, January, 1999, Michael Rogers, review of Slackjaw, p. 114; July, 2000, Antoinette Brinkman, review of Quitting the Nairobi Trio, p. 121.

Newsweek, June 5, 2000, Malcolm Jones, review of Quitting the Nairobi Trio, p. 73.

New York Times Book Review, March 7, 1999, Paula Friedman, review of Slackjaw, p. 19; April 6, 1999, Michiko Kakutani, review of Slackjaw, p. 7; June 25, 2000, Daphne Merkin, review of Quitting the Nairobi Trio, p. 4; March 30, 2003, Emily White, review of The Buzzing, p. 21.

Publishers Weekly, May 22, 2000, review of Quitting the Nairobi Trio, Robert Fleming, "PW Talks with Jim Knipfel," p. 86; December 23, 2002, review of The Buzzing, p. 43.

Washington Post, July 30, 2000, Laura Ciolkowski, review of Quitting the Nairobi Trio, p. X15.


Hackwriters, (April, 2003), Charlie Dickinson, review of The Buzzing.

Jim Knipfel Home Page, (September 24, 2003).

LAWeekly Online, (March 21, 2003), Brendan Bernhard, review of The Buzzing.

Modern Word, (May 20, 2003), Lawrence Daw, review of The Buzzing and interview with Knipfel.

Strange Horizons, (March 17, 2003), David Soyka, review of The Buzzing.

Stranger Online, (July 20, 2000), Rick Levin, review of Quitting the Nairobi Trio.*